[Marxism] Amazon rainforest civilization
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 1 08:15:32 MST 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education, December 3, 2004
Archaeologists say Brazil's rain forest, once thought to be inhospitable
to humans, fostered huge ancient civilizations. The proof is in the dirt.
By MARION LLOYD
High along bluffs overlooking the confluence of the mighty Negro and
Solimões Rivers here, supersize eggplants, papayas, and cassava spring
from the ground.
Their exuberance defies a long-held belief about the Amazon. For much of
the last half century, archaeologists viewed the South American rain
forest as a "counterfeit paradise," a region whose inhospitable
environment precluded the development of complex societies. But new
research suggests that prehistoric man found ways to overcome the
jungle's natural limitations -- and to thrive in this environment in
The secret, says James B. Petersen, an archaeologist at the University
of Vermont who has spent the past decade working in the Brazilian
Amazon, is found in the ground beneath his feet. It is a highly fertile
soil called terra preta do indio, which is Portuguese for "Indian black
earth." By some estimates, this specially modified soil covers as much
as 10 percent of Amazonia, the immense jungle region that straddles the
Amazon River. And much of that area is packed with potsherds and other
signs of human habitation.
"This was one of the last archaeological frontiers on the planet. It's
as if we know nothing about it," says Mr. Petersen, as he analyzes the
discovery of the day, a series of circular carbon deposits that might
indicate the outline of a prehistoric house.
Scientists are now working to determine whether terra preta, which
contains high levels of organic matter and carbon, was deliberately
created by pre-Columbian civilizations to improve upon the notoriously
poor rain-forest soil, or whether the modified earth was an accidental
byproduct of sustained habitation by large groups of people.
Either way, Mr. Petersen believes it likely that pre-Columbian societies
in the Amazon were not the primitive tribal societies they were once
thought to be, but highly complex chiefdoms.
"We're providing the proof," he says during a several-week-long dig in
August near the Brazilian jungle city of Manaus. His team of American
and Brazilian archaeologists, who call themselves the Central Amazon
Project, have excavated more than 60 sites rich in terra preta near
where the Negro and Solimões Rivers merge to form the Amazon River proper.
One of the group's founders, Michael J. Heckenberger of the University
of Florida, is bolstering the new findings with research on large
prehistoric earthworks farther east along the upper Xingu River.
Studying this area, which now is inhabited by the Kuikuru Indians, has
allowed him to compare data of prehistoric land management with modern
On some pre-Columbian sites explored by Mr. Petersen and his team,
several miles of earth are packed with millions of potsherds. The
archaeologists have also found evidence that they say points to the
existence of giant plazas, bridges, and roads, complete with curbs, and
defensive ditches that would have taken armies of workers to construct.
Intriguingly, the earliest evidence of large, sedentary populations
appears to coincide with the beginnings of terra preta.
"Something happened 2,500 years ago, and we don't know what," says
Eduardo Góes Neves, a Brazilian archaeologist at the Federal University
of São Paulo, who is co-director of the Central Amazon Project. He dusts
off the flanged edge of a bowl from around 400 BC that one of his
Brazilian graduate students pulled from a layer of terra preta eight
feet down. The team got lucky when the landowner at Açutuba, the largest
of their excavation sites, bulldozed a huge pit in one of his fields.
The "swimming pool," as the team jokingly calls the 15-yard-wide hole,
is giving them a rare chance to compare levels of terra preta over a
The research has implications not only for history, but also for the
future of the Amazon rain forest. If scientists could discover how the
Amerindians transformed the soil, farmers could use the technology to
maximize smaller plots of land, rather than cutting down ever larger
swaths of jungle. The benefits of what Mr. Petersen calls this "gift
from the past" are already well known to farmers in the area, who plant
their crops wherever they find terra preta.
Rich in Controversy
The claims made for terra preta extend far beyond a legacy passed down
from farmer to farmer. The archaeologists now reject the idea that
pre-contact Amerindians were -- as one team member says, ironically --
"Stone Age primitives frozen at the dawn of time."
"It's made by pre-Columbian Indians and it's still fertile," says Bruno
Glaser, a soil chemist from the University of Bayreuth, in Germany, who
was taking samples of terra preta from another site discovered by Mr.
Petersen's team. "If we knew how to do this, it would be a model for
agriculture in the whole region."
Ideally what researchers dub "slash and char" agriculture, the
indigenous technique that returns nutrients to the soil by mixing in
organic waste and carbon, could replace slash-and-burn, a contemporary
technique that consumes tens of thousands of acres of rain forest every
year. Mr. Glaser is part of an international team of scientists studying
the chemical composition of terra preta in an effort to recreate it.
The research into terra preta fuels a revisionist school of scientists
who argue that pre-Columbian Amazonia was not a pristine wilderness, but
rather a heavily managed forest teeming with human beings. They believe
that advanced societies existed in the Amazon from before the time of
Christ until a century after the European conquest in the 1500s
decimated Amerindian populations through exploitation and disease. The
theory is also supported by the accounts of the first Europeans to
travel the length of the Amazon in 1542. They reported human settlements
with tens of thousands of people stretching for many miles along the
But not everyone working in the field of Amazonian research buys the new
"The idea that the indigenous population has secrets that we don't know
about is not supported by anything except wishful thinking and the myth
of El Dorado," says the archaeologist Betty J. Meggers, who is the main
defender of the idea that only small, tribal societies ever inhabited
the Amazon. "This myth just keeps going on and on and on. It's amazing."
Ms. Meggers, director of the Latin American Archaeology Program at the
Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, in Washington, has
spent her life trying to prove that Amazonia is a uniquely untrammeled
and hostile wilderness. Now 82, Ms. Meggers has been working in the
field since the late 1940s, when she and her late husband, Clifford
Evans, began pioneering fieldwork on Marajó Island at the mouth of the
Amazon. They summarized their findings in their seminal 1954 article,
"Environmental Limitation on the Development of Culture," which was
published in American Anthropologist.
Ms. Meggers's 1971 book, Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit
Paradise (Aldine-Atherton), converted her views into gospel for a
generation of Amazonian archaeologists. In it, she argued that modern
Amerindian groups, generally composed of a few hundred people, follow
ancient practices of infanticide and other population-control measures
to exist in a hostile environment.
"It had a huge impact," says Susanna B. Hecht, a geographer at the
University of California at Los Angeles who has spent three decades
studying traditional farming practices in Amazonia. "Virtually every
Anthropology I class read that book." Ms. Hecht's most recent research
is with the Kayapó Indians in the upper Xingu River, the same region
where Mr. Heckenberger is working. To her surprise, she discovered the
Indians were creating a version of terra preta by burning excess
vegetation and weeds and mixing the charcoal into the soil.
"One of the things we found rather unusual was how much burning was
going on all the time," she says. "It wasn't catastrophic burning. It
was that the whole landscape was smoldering all the time."
Ms. Hecht says the technique was probably more widespread before Indian
societies were devastated by the arrival of the Europeans, who
introduced measles, typhoid, and other diseases to which the Indians had
no resistance. By some estimates, 95 percent of the Amerindians died
within the first 130 years of contact. While their numbers were once
estimated in the millions, there are now roughly 250,000 Amerindians
living in Brazil.
"I think you could have had very dense populations, and what you had was
a real holocaust in various forms," she says. However, Ms. Hecht notes,
little was known about the impact of those epidemics when Ms. Meggers
was first writing, and her persuasive arguments against large
civilizations discouraged archaeologists from probing deeper into the
Amazon. "Everyone said, 'Nobody was there anyway. Why bother?'" says Ms.
The difficulty and dangers of conducting research in the Amazon also
played a part. The region was largely impassible until the 1960s, when
the Brazilian government began encouraging settlement in the jungle's
A few researchers did challenge Ms. Meggers's theories early on. The
most outspoken figure was Donald Lathrup, a University of Illinois
archaeologist who worked in the Peruvian Amazon in the 1950s. He argued
that Amazonia could and did support complex societies with advanced
technology, and that the cradle of those civilizations was very likely
in the central Amazon, where Mr. Petersen is working.
Another pioneer was William M. Denevan, a geographer emeritus at the
University of Wisconsin, whose discovery of huge earthworks in lowland
Bolivia in the early 1960s suggested that pre-Columbian peoples modified
their environment for large-scale agriculture. In a 1992 article, "The
Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492," he argued that
the modern Amazon rain forest was the result of human management over
millennia, not a virgin wilderness.
"The key issue here can be summed up in two words: environmental
determinism," he says, referring to the once-popular school of thought,
favored by Ms. Meggers, that says environment dictates man's ability to
progress. "We are saying people always have options," he says. "We can
farm in outer space. And we can farm in the Antarctic. Or we can crop in
the driest part of the Sahara Desert. It may be very expensive, but
that's a different issue."
Building a Mystery
Other researchers working in Amazonia go even further. They suggest that
prehistoric man may have created cities that rivaled those of the Aztecs
and Maya. Again, they say, the proof is in the dirt.
William I. Woods, a geographer at Southern Illinois University at
Edwardsville, has been studying terra preta deposits extending over
100,000 acres around the Brazilian jungle city of Santarém, where the
Tapajós River meets the Amazon. He believes as many as 500,000 people
might once have inhabited the area, implying a civilization larger than
the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, once the largest city in the Americas.
"There is some fussing about the magnitude, from tens of thousands, or
hundreds of thousands, or millions," he says. "But I don't think there
are too many scholars who have any problems with chiefdoms existing and
lots of people being supported for long times in various places in the
Ms. Meggers has not taken challenges to her life's work lying down. In a
2001 article in Latin American Antiquity, she accuses the revisionist
camp of endangering the rain forest by suggesting that large-scale
farming was feasible in the region. Her view is shared by some
biologists and environmentalists.
"Adherence to 'the lingering myth of Amazonian empires' not only
prevents archaeologists from reconstructing the prehistory of Amazonia,
but makes us accomplices in the accelerating pace of environmental
degradation," she writes.
Mr. Neves, the Brazilian archaeologist, disagrees. "It's not like
loggers are revving up the chainsaws after reading our articles," he
says as he walks along a winding dirt road littered with pre-Columbian
potsherds on his way to the dig site at Açutuba, a jungle-shrouded
stretch of farmland overlooking the Negro River. "Deforestation through
ranching isn't how the Amerindian interacted with the landscape," he
says. "The Amerindians weren't destroying the environment. They were
The rain forest is not inherently hostile to man, says Mr. Neves. He
argues that pre-Columbian peoples knew how to use the huge diversity of
species to their advantage, through a combination of farming, fishing,
and managed tree harvesting. Cassava, a starchy root that grows well in
the acidic rain-forest soil, was probably the Amerindians' main food
source, which the Indians could have supplemented with corn and other
vegetables grown on terra preta. But they also relied heavily on fish
and turtles for protein, he says.
Blowing Dust From the Pages
Terra preta proponents also argue that historical accounts support their
theories. The Rev. Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish priest who accompanied
the first exploratory expedition down the Amazon in 1542, reported
seeing hundreds of tortoises kept in corrals and "an abundance of meat
and fish ... that would have fed 1,000 men for a year." The friar also
recounts an ambush by more than 10,000 Indians at a point in the river
just west of modern-day Manaus, suggesting that the area was heavily
populated as recently as the 16th century. He also describes armies of
Indians who repelled attempts by the Spaniards to come ashore near
Ms. Meggers is skeptical. "How could these people, when they're fleeing,
count 10,000 warriors?" she says. "It's silly." She notes that other
portions of Father Carvajal's account, in particular his description of
female Amazon warriors, which gave the river its name, have since been
dismissed by historians as inventions to impress the Spanish crown.
She also challenges estimates by the Central Amazon Project that between
5,000 and 10,000 people may have once inhabited Açutuba, possibly the
largest site under excavation in the Brazilian Amazon. "They have not
done enough work to establish whether it was a single large settlement
or a result of intermittent occupation over longer periods of time," she
says. She also accuses the group of ignoring the results of surveys in
the region backed by the Smithsonian Institution over several decades.
Mr. Petersen shrugs off the criticism. "We're not here to fight Betty
Meggers," he says, while taking a break from digging under the broiling
jungle sun. "We're here to build on her work and refine it." He says
that Ms. Meggers made a major contribution to the field by highlighting
the enormous challenges involved in inhabiting the Amazon rain forest,
even if he argues that later research shows that pre-Columbian peoples
found ways of overcoming those natural limitations.
His team has several dozen radiocarbon dates from potsherds and carbon
deposits collected throughout Açutuba, which they say show that the
entire site was continuously inhabited during two waves from about 360
BC to as late as 1440 AD. The evidence also supports the existence of
stratified societies, says Mr. Petersen. He picks up an ornate, white-
and black-painted potsherd from the terra preta under a field of
glistening eggplants. "This is probably from about AD 800, and look how
sophisticated it is. It's like fine dinnerware," he says, comparing the
sherd with that from a coarser vessel from about the same period, which
he calls "everyday china." His team has unearthed more than 100,000
potsherds dating from 500 BC to about AD 1500 at the three-square-mile
site, including roughly a dozen burial urns.
Digging through earth packed with tons of pottery is slow going.
Particularly when you only have about eight pairs of hands.
"We've been working here nine years, and we've barely scratched the
surface," says Mr. Neves, who has raised the bulk of the money from his
university and the São Paulo state government. He estimates that there
are at least 100 unexcavated sites within their research area, which
extends over 40 square miles around the town of Iranduba. Some of the
sites might be even larger than Açutuba.
Unlike the Maya in northern Central America, the inhabitants of the
Amazon lacked stone for building. So they had to resort to organic and
man-made materials. As a result there are few permanent markers of
earlier civilizations, forcing archaeologists to extrapolate from small
scraps of evidence.
"The only reason that everyone accepts large, socially complex societies
in Maya land is that they have surviving pyramids and stelae," says Mr.
Petersen. "If the Maya and others had used mostly organic perishables in
their architecture, like the Amazon people, then I would bet there would
be much more mystery and debate about the nature of pre-Columbian
Amerindians in Central America, too."
At a nearby site, called Hatahara, the team recently excavated 11 human
skeletons dating to about AD 800 from one nine-yard trench dug into a
large burial mound. Believing it unlikely that they would have stumbled
upon the only evidence in the mound, they estimate there may be hundreds
more bodies buried there, suggesting a population of at least a few
The skeletons provided the team with other insights into the previous
inhabitants. "These were not famine-stricken people," Mr. Neves says,
noting that the skeletons measured about 5-foot-7. In contrast, modern
indigenous inhabitants often do not grow taller than five feet, a fact
used by earlier archaeologists to argue that the jungle was unsuited for
human habitation. "I don't think there were ever severe limitations
here," says Mr. Neves.
He points at the acres of glistening vegetables that seem to grow
effortlessly throughout the Açutuba site. Settlers throughout the
Iranduba area take advantage of the abundant terra preta deposits to
grow vegetables and fruit for the nearby city of Manaus, supplying much
of the produce consumed by its 1.4 million people.
"I know terra preta is very good and that it was made by the Indians,"
says Edson Azevedo Santos, a 48-year-old farmer drenched in sweat from
weeding his zucchini patch. Unlike the acidic soil found in most of the
rain forest, which can only sustain crops for a three-year period, terra
preta plots can withstand constant farming for decades, if properly managed.
Even more striking, terra preta may have the capacity to regenerate
itself, says Mr. Woods, the Southern Illinois geographer. He recently
tested that possibility by removing a large section of terra preta on a
plot near Santarem. To his amazement, the soil grew back within three
years. "I suggested that the soil should be treated as living organism
and that microorganisms are the secret," he says, adding that more
research is needed to allow scientists to repeat the process. "This is
very sophisticated stuff."
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